Saturday, February 13, 2010

THE MEN BEHIND "OCTOBER COUNTRY": Interview with filmmakers Donal Mosher & Michael Palmieri

Picture 1:  Herkimer Cemetery, photographed by Donal Mosher
Picture 2: Donal Mosher, Jed Ryan, & Michael Palmieri


     The new film "October Country" has been getting a lot of buzz lately.  The hauntingly beautiful documentary, which showcases a year in the life of a working class family in upstate New York's Mohawk Valley, was based on Donal Mosher's photography of and writings about his family.   As you can guess, the creators of the movie-- Mosher and prolific filmmaker Michael Palmieri-- have been busier than ever.  After gaining critical success on the film festival circuit ("October Country" was Winner of six awards so far, and was nominated for many others.), the movie is now set for a nationwide theatrical release. "October Country" premieres in New York City's IFC Center this weekend, and hits the big screens in Portland (the city Mosher and Palmieri currently call home), L.A., and other stateside spots throughout March.  There's even a showing in Prague on the schedule!   Mosher and Palmieri are not just creative collaborators; they are life partners as well. The two spoke with Jed Ryan about the movie you'll be hearing much, much more about in the near future:

JR: Congratulations on the critical success of "October Country". Now, in many of the documentaries I have seen, the creators try to steer the viewer to a particular direction or viewpoint.  In some, the filmmakers actually appear in the movie at some point.  We never see the two of you or hear your voices in "October Country", and there's no narration. The characters pretty much speak for themselves.  Is that intentional?
MP: It was totally intentional.
DM: Yeah! It became apparent that they could really speak for themselves, and should speak for themselves.
MP: It's really interesting that you preface that question that way, because it did not used to be that way in documentaries.  Today, there's this growing trend towards the use of the narrator-- the insertion of the individual into the personal story and that sort of thing.  But actually, that's not typical.  There's a history of people making personally narrated films and stuff like that, but that often wasn't the norm.
JR: In "October Country", you're really letting the Mosher family tell their own story.
MP: Also, it's letting the audience work towards understanding what it is we want them to understand, and to interpret it the way they want to.
DM:  We also frame it in the context of Halloween, and with a lot of metaphor.  There's a certain interpretation already happening.  We feel that that's where our presence is really marked.  We're not pretending that it's a dry, straightforward film in any way. It's really got an atmospheric bias.
JR:  Yes, it does.  A lot of documentaries are ostensibly about educating and enlightening the viewer.  Was there a message you wanted to get across with "October Country"?
MP: What we are trying the most to do is to get people to try and understand what it feels like to be in that region, and to be in those situations: putting the audience at the kitchen table, as opposed to distancing ourselves with something like "I'm another person going back home, and this is my story, and now I'm going to go fix things...", or "Here are three things you can do to combat this..."  We were more interested in exploring storytelling of this fashion as a way of bearing witness and giving people a chance to sympathize, as a first step towards understanding the real problem...
DM: ...or, making the choice to understand or not.  I've always felt haunted by my family, and so I wanted to make a film where the characters haunted you.  Then, because they stayed with you-- or the circumstances or the value or whatever it was stayed with you-- you chose to think about it and gauge it on your own.  It's much more in the way that a novel works or that a narrative film works, rather than a typical documentary.
JR: How has the family reacted? Have their lives changed at all with all the attention the movie has received?  Are they even aware of what's going on?
DM: Oh, yeah.  They're aware.  I think it's had small, positive effects.  In a couple of instances, it's had some really seriously positive effects.  Hopefully, that will continue!
JR: The two characters whose future we wonder about in the movie are two of the youngest ones: 12-year old Desi, and Chris, the young man.  We really wonder what happens to them after the movie.
DM: Well, Chris-- because of watching the pain he inflicted upon Dottie-- went back and got his GED as a sort of present to her.  That's the one definitely positive thing we can say happened because of our film-making.  And Desi... she's brilliant!  But, her experience is really small.  Although there are a lot of ambiguities about her future, I think that through the film-making she is beginning to see that there's a world outside the Mohawk Valley. There's a world outside her anger at being trapped.  She feels really trapped, and now she can see outside the box that she sometimes feels herself in.  I'm hoping that will have a really good effect on her.  

JR: I'm going to ask the two of you separately now: Mike, what was it about Donal that made that brought this movie to life?  Could this movie have been made without his contribution?
MP: I don't think the film would have been made at all, because it's his family-- and he's been spending a lot of time as a photographer and writing about his family.  The ideas were in that writing, and his photographs are the inspiration and the source point-- the beginning point.  In a certain sense, had I not seen his photographs or his writing, it would not have happened.
JR: And, Donal?  Same question about Mike!
DM: It's mutual too, because I'm not a cinematographer.  I don't know how to do that, and then there's all the qualities of Mike's work and his actual person.  He could come into a room with his camera, and make people feel comfortable and trust him-- especially given the intensity of the material that is happening with my family.  That's something very, very special.  I don't know how to qualify that gift that he has.  Certainly there's no way that the film could have achieved any of the intimacy that it did without that quality.  
JR: Was it difficult working together creatively, as partners?
(Mike and Donal both laugh.)
DM: Sometimes!
MP: We broke a lot of dishes!  It's the vanity process.  But, it's always that you're fighting the material... never fighting one another, really.  We would always have differences of opinion now and again.  We make compromises as artists together to get to an end point... and in the end, we always look back at it and say, "That compromise was really was the best decision."  Because, we do come from different backgrounds and different aesthetic places as well.
JR: When you show the movie to an audience that's, say-- more urban or cosmopolitan, what kind of reaction do you get?  Is it a culture shock for them?
DM: On the whole, no.  No matter where they're coming from, people still tend to generally just relate to the family dynamic-- even though the incident might be more extreme.  For the most part, that's the reaction!
     "October Country" is playing at New York City's IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at W. Third St., NYC. from Friday, Feb 12 - Thursday, Feb 18.  Directors Mosher and Palmieri will be in attendance at 6:50pm screenings on Fri, Sat, and Sun Feb 12-14.  Call (212) 924-7771 or visit for more info.  Visit for more info and national screenings.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Picture 1: Dottie
Picture 2: Don
Picture 3: Donna
Picture 4: Daneal
Picture 5: Chris
Picture 6: Denise
Picture 7: Desi
Picture 8: "October Country" directors Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher


      "October Country" is a deeply affecting and gorgeously photographed documentary which chronicles a working class family during the course of one year.  The movie starts on Halloween season and concludes at the same time the next year. It's not hard to understand why this magical holiday was chosen a kickoff point for the film.  For many, Halloween is the chance for all of us-- from age six to sixty-- to reconnect with our inner childhood, with such simple pleasures as candy and dressing in costumes.  Indeed, feeling like a kid again would be a great thing for many members of the family profiled in "October Country"; it likely helps them escape from the difficulties of adulthood that they face now.  Those difficulties include the lifelong effects of reduced economic opportunity, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, and more. 
      Meet the Moshers. They live in Mohawk County in upstate New York, a region which was affected by poverty even before the nation's current economic downturn.  Their matriarch is a magnetic woman named Dottie.  Although she wears her years on her face, Dottie is still a lively trooper whose dedication as a mother runs parallel to an admirable (and sometimes puzzling) detachment from her needy family.  This may be because, as her husband Don (a war veteran and retired policeman) points out, this mom still believes that people are essentially good.  Throughout the movie, Dottie dishes out common sense on such subjects as the importance of family and the power of positive thinking.  She also speaks about "cycles": when new generations of families repeat the same mistakes made by their predecessors.  Dottie knows about this firsthand. Her daughter Donna was involved in an abusive relationship, and became a mother at too young an age.  Donna's daughter Daneal, similarly, was involved in abusive relationships and had a baby in her teens.  Viewers wil note that, in fact, the age difference between Donna and Daneal is so narrow that the two could easily pass for sisters rather than as mother and daughter.  In the course of the film, Dottie and Don's charismatic but troubled teenage foster son Chris gets arrested and jailed for stealing from his own foster parents' house.  The audience doesn't see Chris again until the end of the film, when he appears-- rather unsettlingly fetching, I must say-- in "abused wife" drag on Halloween night.  We also meet Denise, Don's sister, who speaks to the dead and practices Wicca-- although her self-professed reliance on pharmaceuticals can be perceived as somewhat antithetical. (Many Wiccans eschew medications for incantations, magic, and more natural cures.)

     A beautifully haunting collaboration of photographer/writer/musician Donal Mosher (a family member) and prolific filmmaker Michael Palmieri, "October Country" is based on Donal's series of photographs of and writings about his family.  The creators of the film never appear in front of the camera. There's no narration, and no master perspective on the subjects of the film to "explain" what's going on or to lead the viewer to a particular viewpoint.  The characters- from Dottie and Don to Donna's young daughter Desiree-- all speak for themselves, and have no problem doing so.  The audience's first instinct may be to judge the characters for their own dilemma, but it's awfully hard to do when the Moshers convey such a matter-of-fact, grin-and-bear-it attitude about their circumstances, sometimes with a dark humor running through: At one point, Daneal bemoans with deadpan honesty that she can't buy presents for her infant daughter Ruby: "It's gonna be bad this birthday.  I can't buy her anything.  Everybody else is gonna have to buy her something and say that I bought it for her!"

      "October County" is NOT a heavy-handed expose or exploitation piece about the plight of the working poor.  We want to know why the characters can't break the "cycles" that Dottie speaks of.  After all, the answers are at least partially out there, but nobody wants to listen-- or, maybe, they just can't.  Why?  Throughout "October Country", there are several references to ghosts-- the ghosts of war that haunt the family patriarch Don, the spirits that Denise speaks to, and more.  It's too far-fetched for many of us to accept that supernatural elements are governing these characters' lives, but it's right on the mark to believe that the ghosts of the past can seriously impact all of our lives-- present and future.  We want a happy ending for the Mosher family... and in this case, a happy ending of sorts may come out in small ways.  That's where twelve-year old Desiree comes in. As she opines about everything from the war to the benefits of playing video games, the bright tween comes across as proportionately much smarter and aware of the world than her older relatives.  We believe wholeheartedly that this girl may break the cycle set by her predecessors.  In a true story about a slice of American life that many of us will never see, Desiree's own personal optimism is more inspiring than a hundred artificial Hollywood happy endings.

     "October Country" is playing at New York City's IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at W. Third St., NYC. from Friday, Feb 12 - Thursday, Feb 18.
The Mosher family will be in attendance at 6:50pm screening on Friday, Feb 12.
Directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri will be in attendance at 6:50pm screenings on Fri, Sat, Sun Feb 12-14.  Call (212) 924-7771 or visit for more info.  Visit for more info and national screenings.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"WHEN JOEY MARRIED BOBBY": Till Death (By Laughter) Do Us Part! Theater Review

Till Death (by Laughter) Do Us Part!

       Sarah Edwards (two-time SAG Award Nominee Tina McKissick), the feisty matriarch of a rather colorful Southern family, is busy planning a wedding-- a wedding which requires two boutonnieres and two male figurines topping the the cake.  Yes, Virginia, this is a gay wedding, with her hunky gay son Joey (Former Detroit Tiger Pitcher Matthew Pender) tying the knot to his boyfriend Bobby.  As it turns out, deets like selecting just the right flowers ("Pansies at a gay wedding?  Won't that seem a bit redundant?") is the easy part.  While she's busy making the arrangements for her son's big day, Sarah is constantly distracted by family drama.  Her left-leaning daughter Sally Joe (Rebecca Dealy) invites a homeless man (Richard James Porter) to stay at the Edwards' house, just in time for the festivities.  Her caustic mother-in-law and longtime nemesis Ivy (Deborah Johnstone) is on her way over to the Edwards' house as well.  As if that's not enough, our Dixieland diva is simultaneously planning on playing The Virgin Mary-- in a blonde wig and sequined dress, with baby Jesus in a mini tuxedo-- in a Nativity-themed project for her Church.  In addition, Sarah has just been nominated for "Christian of the Year" (The prior winner was... Dick Cheney!). To stand a good chance of winning, she must endear herself to the Chair of the Selection Committee, Charity Divine (the legendary Lady Bunny), who's also the wife of the town's influential Baptist preacher.  Ms. Divine is having "family issues" of her own.  She recently bought a Mexican baby she saw for sale on TV, and she spontaneously breaks into episodes of "psychological childbirth"-- allowing Lady Bunny to engage is some of her trademark Lady Bunny-esque antics for the audience. 

    In addition to its kooky characters and crazy situations, "When Joey Married Bobby" crams dozens of pop culture and political zingers into its running time; everyone from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, to Tiger Woods and the cast of "Jersey Shore" get their turn (with Wendy Williams and Levi Johnston perhaps suffering the most humiliation!).  In a performance that gives "larger than life" a new meaning, Lady Bunny and her hair dominate every scene they're in, from the moment the drag diva first appears on the stage.  The Divine Ms. B's appearance alone, in fact, is worth the price of admission.  As Sarah Edwards, Tina McKissick manages to rival Bunny with her outrageously campy persona and equally outrageous outfits. (Wait till you see what she wears for the main event!...) As a dame who could wave both the Confederate flag and a P-FLAG banner with equal conviction, her character is as endearing as she is funny. "When Joey Married Bobby" is pretty much Lady Bunny and Tina McKissick's show all the way, but other characters have their moments: With shoulders broad enough to hang Bunny and McKissick's wardrobes from, Matthew Pender is both charismatic and very, shall we say, "easy on the eyes".  And Deborah Johnstone proves that "Mother Edwards" is not as much of a monster-in-law as she seems at first, in a standout scene with Joey's cute AIDS-afflicted friend Dan (William Yoder) that's both funny and surprisingly provocative.  

      It doesn't always work.  At one point, daughter Sally Joe engages in some political banter that seems kind of ill-fitting for the play's comedic vibe, and there's a one-liner about AIDS that's somewhat overplayed.  But mostly, "When Joey Married Bobby" is a high-spirited, very enjoyable affair: something of a marriage between "Steel Magnolias" and John Waters' cult flick "Pink Flamingos".  In one scene, Sarah's long-suffering personal assistant Viola (Jennifer Banner Sobers) reacts to yet another one of her boss' crazy ideas with, "I don't think this is gonna work!"  Our heroine retorts, "Of course it will.  This is the South!"  Amen to that!

"When Joey Married Bobby"
is playing at Theater 80, 80 Saint Mark's Place btwn 1st and 2nd Aves.  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturday at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM, with a special Valentine's Day showing at 7PM.  Go to or call (212)388-0388 for tickets.
Visit for more!

Friday, February 5, 2010

SEE IT! GRAND "DADDY"! Theater Review by Jed Ryan

Picture 4: Jed Ryan & Gerald McCullouch
Picture 5: Jed Ryan & Dan Via
Picture 6: Randy Jones of the Village People, Gerald McCullouch, & Bjorn DuPaty
Picture 7: Promoter/nightlife guru Will Clark & Bjorn DuPaty
Picture 8: Randy Jones & Gerald McCullouch
Picture 9: Bjorn DuPaty & Randy Jones
Picture 10: Will Clark with filmmaker Douglas Langway ("Bear City", "Raising Heroes") & b-friend
Picture 11: Uber-promoter Keith Collins, actress/artist Teresa Galeani, Dan Via, Randy Jones, Gerald McCullouch, & Bjorn DuPaty

Theater Review by Jed Ryan

     In "Daddy", the intriguing new play by Dan Via, we meet Colin and Stew: two men living in Pittsburgh who have been friends since their college days at Yale.  Colin (Gerald McCullouch) is a popular writer and the self-proclaimed top scorer for his soccer team.  He's charming, self-assured, and... shall we say, quite "easy on the eyes" (and to boot, he wears a size twelve and a half shoe...).  Law professor Stew (Dan Via) is not as self-confident as his friend, and is a bit more... shall we say, "tightly wound".  In case you haven't figured it out, these two are pretty much complete opposites, right down to their choice of clothes and their facial expressions.  Colin emanates affable frat boy/jock charm with his smile, while Stew clearly wears his angst on his face.  Differences aside, their friendship is rock solid-- although they're not above shooting some verbal arrows at each other. Colin taunts Stew with zingers like, "I didn't know you were that worked up about gay marriage.  You haven't even been on a date since...!".  Stew gets his chances to retort with lines like, "I realize modesty is a confusing concept for you!"

     Colin's life is changed-- in a big way-- when he's approached at a bar by a wide-eyed, aspiring journalist named Tee (Bjorn DuPaty), who's about 20 years his junior. As fate would have it, Tee is the new intern at Colin's newspaper.  Despite their differences in age (Tee doesn't get Colin's "E.T." reference, and Colin finds the "Big Brother" vibe of locating someone's house with Google Maps to be a bit unsettling.), the two are attracted to each other.  Before you can say "daddy fantasy", the sharp 21-year old and the silver fox share a romantic evening (as well as a scorcher of a kiss!), and soon afterward the two get really close, really fast.  As their forbidden relationship progresses, Stew becomes a bit unsettled about his best bud's new boyfriend.  But why?  Is he concerned about the age difference between Tee and Colin?  Is Stew jealous that this beautiful stranger is taking his best friend away from him?  Or is there something else?  As it turns out, there is something else a-brewin', and the revelation of just what that is results in a shocking climax which will have the audience backtracking to see if they missed any cryptic clues from the beginning of the story. 

     Envelope-pushing plot twists aside, at the heart belonging to this "Daddy" is a story about the bond between two friends.  The play explores the emotional nuances of a close gay male friendship, while allowing the two leads to display some truly outstanding acting in the process.  McCullouch perfectly exudes the free-spirited, self-confident sexuality of his character Colin.  Via, in the less showy role, nevertheless has many of the play's best lines thanks to his character Stew's sarcastic humor.  The rapport between McCullouch and Via is very palpable; their provocative final scene together seems to be the culmination of all their acting synergy throughout the play.  "Daddy" is a triumph for all three actors, as well as director David Hilder, who gets extra credit for packing so much great stuff into a fast-moving 95 minutes. "Daddy" is a truly compelling theater experience.

Actor Gerald McCullouch and Playwright/Actor Dan Via gave an exclusive interview to Dish Miss' Jed Ryan:

Jed Ryan: Hi Gerald.  Congratulations on the premiere of "Daddy".  What attracted you to the part of Colin?
Gerald McCullough: Thanks for the congrats. Moocho appreciated.  I was instantly attracted to the script and "Colin"'s journey. Not only is Dan's play extremely well written with sharp and funny dialogue, but the story is one of the most original and intriguing things I've read in quite some time.

JR: Colin is a confident, handsome, highly sexual older guy.  In your opinion, is there a shortage of representation of sexy, over-40 guys in the gay male-oriented media (movies, theater, magazines...) today?  
GM: If there has been in the past, I hope that's in the process of changing. I recently finished filming "BearCity", in which I play a similar role to "Colin" in "Daddy" so I'm hopeful, obviously, that we're on the path to making confident, sexy, 40+ guys and their stories a more prominent part of male-oriented storytelling.

JR: The big revelation in "Daddy" towards the end of the play is a shocker.  What was your reaction when you first read that in the script?  Were you like, "Whoa!"?
GM: I was heartbroken - from Colin's perspective. And blown away by what it says about the things we strive for and long for very often being right in front of our faces all along. And the hardship of getting older is articulated in such a beautiful way.

JR: In addition to acting, you have done some directing too.  Is there a project that you have on the horizon, as director?
GM: Yes I'm currently juggling a few projects with my producing partner. A gay-themed feature film set on Fire Island, an Atlanta-based reality show, and bringing a stage adaptation of a very well known book to Off Broadway.
JR: How do you think audiences who know you from your role as Bobby Dawson on "CSI" will react to seeing you play such a different kind of character on the stage?
GM: Hopefully, people's familiarity with my work on "CSI" won't inhibit them from going on the journey of "Daddy" and experiencing that world through "Colin's" eyes. Thus far, people have been very supportive and the response has been pretty freakin' wonderful. Doing this play and telling Colin's story every night has been one of the most artistically fullfilling experiences of my life.

JR: Dan, the friendship between Colin and Stew is so-- for lack of a more elaborate word-- "real".  They are such opposites, and they have their ups and downs, yet they are quite devoted to each other as friends.  Is the relationship between these two characters based upon real-life people you know?
Dan Via: Only very loosely. I have a couple of friends in DC I jokingly refer to as “nonsexual life partners,” but it’s not really a joke. There’s no romance per se, but they’re pretty much joined at the hip and I predict that’s for keeps. But their personalities and the dynamics of their relationship are different than Colin and Stew’s.

JR: From your bio as an actor, it appears that you are attracted to a lot of renegade theater: projects that break the rules. That's always a good thing! Is that where the envelope-pushing element of "Daddy" comes from?
DV: I don’t necessarily gravitate toward controversial or rule-breaking stuff. It all depends on the play. I’m also a fan of realism and, to be honest, I see my play as pretty mainstream. I’m not trying to push the envelope so much as tell a story I’ve not seen before.

JR: Gay marriage is not the main theme of "Daddy", but the issue seems to be simmering below the surface.  What statement are you making about gay marriage with the play?
DV: Gay marriage and, more generally, the notion that gays have more options as couples and parents than we used to, is part of what drives Colin through the story. He’s reassessing what he wants in this new environment and maybe regretting some of his past choices. But is it really possible to do a mid-life 180? I guess I’m not so sure. I think because we have been marginalized for so long, gay people have had to think outside the box about what makes a family, and that’s not always a bad thing. But I’m not trying to make any kind of political statement with this play. It’s all about how these specific characters, with their particular backgrounds, respond to this moment in time.

JR: What moments in "Daddy" have gotten strong reactions from the audience so far?
DV: I’m gonna dodge this question. I don’t want to set up any expectations. ;)

JR: Thanks guys!!!

"Daddy" runs through February 13th
TBG Arts Center Mainstage Theater
312 W. 36th St., 3rd Floor (btwn 8th & 9th Aves.)
Wednesdays-Mondays 8PM
Tickets are $18, available at or call (212)868-4444  

That's MISTER Woof to You!


Picture 1: The contestants
Picture 2: Mike Dreyden with winner Ryan Moller & go-go boy Ricky
Picture 3: Brandon, Nick, & Leo
Picture 4: Judges Will Clark & Torez with Mike Dreyden
Picture 5: Mike with contestants
Picture 6: JJ Mack, Judge Jonny Mack, & First Runner Up Jared
Picture 7: Ryan
Picture 8: Mike with First Runner Up Jared & Winner Ryan
Picture 9: Mike Dreyden, Will Clark, Jonny Mack, & Torez
Picture 10: Jed Ryan & tarot guru Chris G.

That's MISTER Woof to You!

      On February 1st, the popular Monday night bear/cub/otter/silver fox party "Woof!" at Chelsea's View Bar was the site for the First Annual "Mr. Woof!" Contest.  Five contestants-- Ryan, Jared, Brandon, Nick, and Leo-- vied for the chance to win the envied title.  Hosted by porn star and promoter Mike Dreyden, the celebrity judges were well-known men-about-town Will Clark, Torez, and Jonny Mack.  After the crowd was warmed up by go-go boy Ricky and worked up even more by contestants Nick (in a leather jockstrap) and Leo (in tight leather shorts) playing pool, DJ Joe X launched into Mickey Avalon's "Stroke Me", and each of the contestants had his turn on "the box".  The three judges then asked each of the five guys a really probing question, like "Are you a top or a bottom?"  When judge Will Clark asked contestant Jared, "During sex, whose name do you frequently call out?", his answer was... "Bruce Willis!" (Sigmund Freud, analyze that!)  The audience's enthusiasm would determine the winner, but the volume of applause between the two hairiest guys was too close to tell.  So, the next step was a showdown dance-off between Ryan and Jared.  The winner was Ryan Moller, who was not only had the best moves but also knew how to win the crowd-- making lots of eye contact and workin' that boyish charm with the testosterone-heavy audience.  The blue jockstrap helped too.  Afterward, the newly crowned Mr. Woof 2010 told me that he was nervous about his dancing; to practice, he was "watching a lot of You Tube videos".  When someone else asked First Runner Up Jared if he would ever show "the full monty", he said absolutely not... even if it would have meant winning the contest.  I asked him, "Not even for charity?" The answer was still, "No!"  That's a dirty shame... Another contestant told me that he didn't think his pecs looked good enough in the pictures I took that night.  I told him to (1) hit the gym, and (2) remember that The First Annual Mr. Rawhide Contest is on March 12th.  Hint, hint!

     After the contest, there was a raffle for some Dominic Ford 3-D XXX videos ("I'm not in these!", Mr. Dreyden was quick to point out.  That's a dirty shame, again...), while DJ Joe X's infinite playlist went on and on, featuring endless crowd-pleasers ranging from "Disco Inferno" to Duran Duran's "The Reflex", and guilty pleasures like Grace Jones' "Love Is the Drug".  (As well as Shona Laing's lost 1987 new wave gem "Soviet Snow".  Now here's a DJ after my own heart!)   How hot was the night?   Mike Dreyden says of the event, "The Mr Woof! Contest was so HOT and so LOUD the neighbors called!  That's when you know 'its a party'!"  The neighbors called?  Maybe these bitchy queens were just upset that the rowdiness of Woof! was interrupting their season premiere of "RuPaul's Drag Race"  For the last time, that's a dirty shame!...

      Visit to stay in the know of Mike Dreyden's upcoming events!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

THE DOCTOR IS IN! Demetre Daskalakis Speaks about HIV and "Sexed-Up Medicine"!

Demetre Daskalakis Speaks about HIV and "Sexed-Up Medicine"!

     Dr. Demetre Daskalakis knew that a different, outside-the-box approach to HIV/AIDS awareness in New York City was needed-- in particular when it came to men who have sex with men.  Daskalakis is Founder and Medical Director of The Men's Sexual Health Project (M*SHP), a volunteer-run organization which promotes sexual health among men who have sex with men in The Gay Apple.  The core goal of M*SHP is to increase access to sexual health (HIV and STD) testing-- making it convenient, free, and sensitive to the needs of the gay and bi male community.  An Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at NYU Medical Center, and an Attending Physician at the neighboring Bellevue Hospital Center, the magnetic Daskalakis is indeed an expert in the field.  He was recognized in the popular NYC magazine "Paper" as a "Do-Gooder" and was honored by Mayor Bloomberg on World AIDS Day 2008 for his pioneering HIV prevention/awareness work in New York City.   When I call Daskalakis a "pioneer", that's not an understatement.  M*SHP goes directly to places where gay men meet for sex, including the East Side Club, The West Side Club, and the mens' only nights at Paddles.  Working with a Harm Reduction model that has been used in adults-only clubs in other cities, these venues not only encourage safer sex practices, but offer free on-site testing for HIV and other STD's, safer sex counseling, and referrals to follow-up health care.  The program, no doubt considered "controversial" at first, has been a success: Daskalakis states that in its four years, M*SHP has tested nearly 3,000 men so far.

      Rather than offer the cookie-cutter style platitudes about safer sex that have been ingrained in all of our mind through the years, Daskalakis pushes for an individualized approach that addresses the larger issue of sexual health, and does NOT sacrifice sexual freedom.   Daskalakis states, "It's straightforward.  You have to look at what you're doing and say 'Why am I doing it?'   'Cause when you figure out why you're doing it, you can create the optimal approach of prevention for you.  I don't think there's a 'one size fits all'.  Would I want everyone at risk to wear a condom?  Yes.  The reality is, people aren't going to wear condoms all the time.  Do I want everyone who is highly sexually active to get tested for HIV every two to six months?  Yes.  That I can make a difference with! That I know!  Let's do that, and let's do it aggressively.  Get yourself treated for STD's so you don't have inflammatory things going on that will increase your risk for HIV.  There are all these things you can do.  But at the end of the day, what's most important for me is awareness and intention.  You have to be aware of what you're doing, and understand the intention of your action.  If you are doing things with your mind and eyes closed, you've got to open your eyes and see what you are doing.  Because then, you can figure out what's right for you.  If it's right for you to be a barebacker, there are ways to be a barebacker and be as safe as you can be.  If that's the path that you're gonna go down, then there's a responsibility to yourself and others that you have.  If that's the path you have chosen, it needs to be chosen with your eyes wide open with all the details.  That's really why we're there.  We give people all the facts, all the details.  There's a big paternalistic drive in medicine to have everyone do things not based on the data, but to do things based on what you think is the right thing to do-- and that's moralistic.  We look at the data and say: The best prevention is condoms.  If you're not gonna do that, Plan B is PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).  If you're not gonna do that, Plan C is this... Some people need to do A, B, and C; and some people, if they're not gonna do A, at least they can do B and C."  Daskalakis realizes that part of the challenge is confronting America's apprehension about discussing sexual matters.  For example, while some studies have suggested that the use of erectile dysfunction drugs increase HIV and STD risk. the doctor sees things in a different way:  "Potentially, the appropriate use and frank counseling in use of these drugs will actually decrease HIV risk.  How many men have I met who don't use condoms because they can't keep it up?  Well, if you can keep it up, you'll keep a condom on to complete a sex act, and you'll actually use a condom.  But someone has to say that to you!" 

Daskalakis gave a no-holes barred interview with Jed Ryan about mission of M*SHP and the current state of HIV/AIDS awareness:

JR: New York City has always been on the "cutting edge" in a lot of ways, but in some ways it's also very conservative.  When it comes to HIV/AIDS care, we have the best HIV doctors and the best care, and we  also give out free condoms.  But there's also this conservative element...
DD: Absolutely!
JR: A lot of sex clubs and other sex businesses closed down a while back, and some people believe the City is responsible for that. Is there some kind of ambivalence going on when it comes to sex in the City?
DD: I think that New York-- at its core, politically-- has elements that are really progressive, but then at the end of the day tends to be very conservative, especially on the topic of sex... and especially on the topic of gay sex.  So, I think that in general, New York has taken sort of this tact of "Don't ask, don't tell", which every now and then flares up into this very aggressive conservative mode where venues are closed, and there's reduced opportunities where people may find places where they can meet partners and have sex in those locations-- whatever "sex" means.  Not necessarily genital penetration or anal penetration, but oral sex or whatever...
JR: Playing!
DD: Playing!  Yeah!  And so I think that currently, there's a lot of debate between the folks who are the army doing HIV and STD prevention, and the folks who are the over-arching, bigger administrators in various departments throughout the City.  So, I think that there is still not a resolution. There continues to be a schism between the folks who are in the know and the folks who are the political face. That's sort of a struggle-- because at its core, New York is a very conservative place.  Compared to San Francisco, we're lookin' pretty conservative!
JR: Even compared to Cleveland, if you can believe that!
DD: It's absolutely true.  Cleveland has a lot of commercial sex venues, and they have a good relationship with them, and have learned that the best way to deal with them is to partner with them, rather than to antagonize them if you want to keep things above board and not so far underground that you can't find things.  It's totally different. They are all licensed-- and taxed!
JR: Was M*SHP considered controversial when they first came about?  I imagine the idea of testing people for HIV and STD's at sex clubs must have been renegade at the time!
DD: Totally.  The thing is, it is renegade to all sides.  It's not only the people who work for New York City who can be conservative, but also the people who work for commercial sex venues.  They're very used to people breathing down their necks who are medical, and looking for closure in a very aggressive way.  In some ways, I represent a threat both from the City's administrative side as well as to the folks who are running these places.  Because, they think, "How can I trust this doctor type, this medical person, this clinical person?"   So, it's taken a long time to get more and more trust built up where we're invited to venues more frequently. They might look at me like a narc.  I'm very specifically NOT a narc!  That's what's so fun about it.  It's actually funny that in the core of all the dysfunction of what happened, the dysfunction is why we were able to find a path to actually start doing what we're doing.  So, the fact that Bellevue and NYU is not a part of the Department of Health but is a separate approach to health care provision, we're able to have these interactions without the political firestorm.  And from the perspective of the hospitals and medical centers and the medical schools, it looks like really good community service.  So, what happens is: By combining all of the dysfunction and taking the best parts of the dysfunction to create a path, you actually generate a program that can be successful and take you all kinds of places.  So, yeah,  it was really controversial when we started, and even controversial to people on the ground-- the people doing the testing and the people getting tested.  When we first popped up at The East Side Club or West Side Club, no one had any idea what to do with us. They were like, "Do we trust them, do we not trust them?"  And now, what happened and what we've proven is that we've become part of the landscape.  We're not aggressive at all.  We're just there.  And by being there, people come to us.  We don't go to them.  We have never once asked anyone to be tested for HIV.  In the four years we've done it, not once have we said, "Hey you, come to us!"  We just exist, make our presence known, and people come to us.  That's why I think we have been able to survive, because one of the things that you learn with HIV and STD's is that the bigger HIV epidemic is really a lot of smaller epidemics.  In New York, HIV transmission right now still continues to be among men who have sex with men.  It is the mini-epidemic driving the fire.  Addressing it directly rather than pussyfooting around is the only way to deal with it.
JR: That's what a lot of people DON'T like to do-- address things directly!
DD:  You have to look at it in the face and say "I accept what you're doing"... or at least "I don't care"...and then, let's just create a contextual approach to making this place a safer place for you and the people you'll be meeting and playing with.
JR: Medicine in general has been a conservative science, maybe because it was governed by straight, older Caucasian men for so long.  Because of that, there was not only some homophobia, but also what some have termed "eroto-phobia" as well, which may have hampered a lot of progress in advances in sexual pleasure.
DD: I think that's true.  And one of our very specific missions in starting this thing is that we were gonna "sex it up".  We're unabashed harm reductionists, and in doing so what that means is that we are comfortable sexualizing the program, and being really happy to deal with people with what they come with to the table.  An appropriate medicine answer with HIV prevention is "100 percent".  Like, "You have to use condoms 100 percent", "You have to do 'XYZ' 100 percent"... and for us, what we have developed is a sliding scale approach.  If you're someone who never uses condoms, nothing I'm gonna do in the 20 minutes that we're together is gonna make you use condoms.  But at least I can give you advice on how to prevent HIV infection if you decide not to use a condom.  So, I feel like we've decided very aggressively to become harm reductionists and in so doing so, have used fairly erotic images to get people to see what we're doing.  We go to very erotic places and have no fear of them.  My staff has no fear.  It's really fun: When they start, you can tell that they're a little skittish; but eventually, they're like, "Whatever!  I can test in a bathroom in the corner.  I don't care what's going on out there!"  Or, "I do care, and it's kind of hot, but my job is to be in here and when they come in, I kind of get what's going on and get the environment, and so I'm really comfortable telling you what I think is an approach for you to prevent 'badness'!"  We're sexed-up medicine.  That is what we do!  I approach this from a nightlife perspective.  I lived in New York in the '90's and I was a club kid, and I had every hair color, and I wore platforms.  I approach it looking at myself as a medical nightlife promoter.  So, I am promoting an event.  It's the same thing as promoting for Disco 2000 in the '90's.  This is what it felt like.  Same thing.  It's just that now, I come with a skill set that makes it fun to sort of figure out a way to integrate and contextualize medical prevention in a fun setting.  I really feel like I learned the majority of my bedside manner by being a nightlife person.  I can talk to anybody, no matter what!

JR:  I like what you wrote somewhere, that it would be great to become fashionable and chic to get tested, and not something you "have" to do.
DD: Right!  It's being a part of that club that is comfortable enough to walk into these venues and sit down and do this.  It's a magical thing.  We don't pretend that we don't value our clients.  We know names, we remember all the details. We have this steady and consistent clientele, as well as new people, and we respect them and are psyched that they are with us, and believe they're special, and try to emanate the fact that they're a special club.  They spread the word themselves.  Word of mouth is our second or third most common way to find us now.  At the end of the day, I am no different than Hunteur (Promoter of Grab Ass at Paddles) or the staff at the West Side Club or East Side Club or Grab Ass.  In fact, I consider myself staff at those locations now.
JR: I understand that, but it's also great to have someone like yourself who's truly an expert in the field: who really knows the medical, scientific facts AND who works directly with the population affected by or at risk for HIV. Too many people today get their health information from anecdotes, or from the internet-- not necessarily from a health care professional!
DD: I feel that one of the things with public health that has been a mistake with HIV prevention in New York is that they take an "all or nothing" approach, and they don't realize that what they need is a champion in each risk environment.   If you're having problems with women of color, then you need to find someone who will champion the situation.  If you're having problems with men who have sex with men who are highly sexually active, you have to have someone willing to champion that.  So, rather than saying that there's one policy for the universe, you have to say: Here are the multiple contexts of risks.  We have to address them.  We can't do it all as a City.  We need help.  I see myself really as an intermediary, where I know this knowledge and can work with that.  I have this sort of "street cred", thank God, to be able to work with the other folks.  It's kind of nice.  It's all about "street cred" in both directions!

JR: Gotcha!  Now, there has been, no exaggeration, an explosion of bareback sex videos and websites, and in general, a lessening of the "taboo" of barebacking.  To me, it's mind-boggling. One of my friends who's involved in the sex biz says that he doesn't judge whether guys do it, but he feels that they should still get tested anyway...
DD: Totally!
JR: How do you feel about barebacking?  Especially when some adult film companies specialize in bareback videos and aggressively promote them?
DD: The reality is that media images are powerful, but they are more representative of what people are thinking than they are of what necessarily triggers that thought.  So I feel-- and this is gonna sound kind of New Agey and Zen I guess-- that all of this energy that we're focusing on HIV prevention is in my opinion. just calling in more risk and more HIV.  I feel like what the emphasis has to be is not on HIV prevention, but on sexual health.  That's the difference. The difference may be very narrow, but I really believe that you're calling in more trouble by sort of saying, "You must prevent HIV." rather than saying "You must have a healthy relationship with your sexuality and with what you do."  The preponderance of barebacking things going on-- videos, parties, and other things-- is really a side effect of that "all or none" approach to HIV prevention, and the lack of a really clear understanding that (1) focusing on people's health, and (2) making sure that they have the resources necessary to keep themselves healthy will likely prevent HIV... not this "You must do this, you must do that, you must wear a condom".  I mean, it's important to wear a condom, and I advise that everyone does... but if you don't, there are other things you can do to keep yourself healthy-- and that also includes actually asking yourself why you bareback.  Whenever we meet someone who's a consistent barebacker, my favorite thing to do is ask them "Why?"  No one ever asks them.  They can say, "Because it's pleasurable", and I'm like, "That's not what I mean.  WHY?"  Like, you are smart, you know the risk, you get what's goin' on.  They all know.  I get, "Well, I do it because it makes me feel like more of a man.  It makes me feel like I have better intimacy..."  There's all these interesting perspectives on why people do it.  The answer may be, "Because I'm on drugs."... but that's not the most frequent answer.  The most frequent answer is some deeper thing. So, I feel like it supports my point.  You have to figure out what is a healthy relationship with your sexuality, and promote that relationship, to be able to actually reach the next level-- which is declining HIV rates.  Not to say "Prevent it! Prevent it!" and cram it down your throats... because that's just gonna bring it more.  Period.  I say that from a place of experience, from lots of men that I met.  Lots and lots and lots, and the more I see it, the more I believe it.

JR: For me, it's still puzzling that after having "safe sex talk" we have had drilled into our heads since the '80's, we'll still meet a lot of guys who say, "I only bareback".  
DD: But why?  The answer is, it isn't just pleasure.  People seek pleasure for lots of reasons.  The specific kind of pleasure they seek may just be from a purely primal place, but very often when it's pleasure that puts them at really high risk for things, there's something else going on about their relationship with their own health and sexuality.  Again, it sounds very New Agey, but it's almost like you're asking for what you don't want by saying, "I want HIV to stop and that's by making everyone do exactly what I say."  It's like a dictum for prevention.  I really think that the answer is: The side effect of having a healthy sexuality is learning what is appropriate for you to keep yourself healthy.

JR: Well, obviously the way things have been done the past few decades have NOT worked!
DD:  It has not worked.  A paradigm shift is needed.  The problem is that the funding stuff all goes with the robotic HIV prevention agenda.  That's not what the agenda should be.  The agenda should be one focusing on health.  If you're an HIV positive man in New York City who's depressed, you will have all of the resources on the planet to bathe in, to be able to deal with that depression.  If you are the highest risk man having sex in New York City, and are depressed, and HIV negative, and have no money or insurance, then you're plum out of luck.  It's the way the resources are allocated.  I think it's important to have resources for prevention and health care for HIV-positives, but you need to look at health before the damage to health has happened as well.
JR: Sort of like "health care" as opposed to "sick care".
DD: It's "well care".  I do care for HIV positive patients.  This is what I do all day long.  When I meet one of these guys, I feel that all these services that I have for my HIV+ patients, I cannot access for you.  But you need exactly what I have.  It's all about the funding stream and the way the resources are allocated.    Theoretically, some places are doing this.  But the places that were doing it-- which I will not name, which are famous in New York City for doing things for HIV and prevention-- are focused on HIV positive people, not HIV negative people.  So, I kind of feel that the whole point of M*SHP is to put the focus back on the people at risk, and say, "Look here.  Allocate resources to this.  Make it happen!"  Look at the power that there is this: 4.2% of the people are HIV positive.  But guess what? 95.8% are negative.  If I could enact my vision of what we could do, I could keep many of those 95.85 people negative-- many, many, many-- by just doing very simple things-- like PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).
JR: We don't always reward people for creative visions, sadly!   In fact, thinking outside the box is often DIS-couraged!

DD:  The one thing that's really heartening is that the sex club folks and the City both think I'm cool.  They think that this is a good idea.  At some point, the immobile object and the irresistible force come together to generate something.  So, it's on its way; it's just a question of when it comes!
JR: I hope so!  Now, there's a group of people called "HIV denialists" that believe in and promote a theory that HIV does not cause AIDS.  There's even this awful documentary ("House of Numbers") which was out a while back that provides a platform for that theory.  Part of their rational is a conspiracy theory that the drug companies don't want to find a cure for HIV, because it's more lucrative to have people be on meds the rest of their life... and that the HIV drugs are poison that actually contribute to sickness a speedier death.  How do you feel about that?

DD: My answer to that, generally, is that there MAY be other factors. But what I know is that when I start HIV medications on people who are dying, I can make them not die.  So, yes, there are toxicities inherent to that.  HIV medication, no matter how you look at it and without a doubt, is chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy has side effects.   Chemotherapy isn't good for you.  HIV medicines were really bad for you, then they became less bad for you, and now they're even less bad for you.  As we go along, I expect the toxicity will be better and better.  But remember, we haven't even had a whole generation of people with this disease yet.  Not even one.  It's still brand new.  Who knows what's gonna happen?  That's one of the reasons I like being in the field.  I gotta say that in the last two years, something very exciting has happened in HIV research.  I'm excited that the conversation of "eradication" is back.  People are looking at the fact that the science has progressed far enough that we're looking at ways to eradicate HIV-- which means "cure".  We went years and years and years without hearing the "C" word-- and now, more and more highfalutin', high-powered immunologists and geneticists are talkin' "cure" again.  So, I think that the fact that we're having this conversation means that the energy is focused again on that the meds are toxic, and that the goal really is not to make more and more meds, but to make meds to make people survive long enough for a cure.  So, I'm pretty excited about that!  M*SHP-wise, I'm excited for two things.  One is research, and I'm happy to say that M*SHP is gonna spin into a deep, deep research mode, which I love.  And so, because we have established a rapport with a lot of the most sexually active men in New York City, we have in effect identified a bunch of people who despite years and years of unprotected anal sex, have not seroconverted.  Amazingly, we've just been IRB-approved and have a small amount of funding to collaborate with the best scientists in the U.S to actually look at these men, to see if there's anything immunologically or genetically different about them that could be a target for a cure, a vaccine, or a drug.  The part that's cool about that is M*SHP attracted it.  We just did our little clinical thing, and then everyone from the outside said, "Holy shit! There is no other group of people in the country who have this level of potential exposure and are still negative."  So, we very well may be staring down this little project actually coming up with a drug target, vaccine target, or cure target.  And I gotta say-- and it's all more hocus pocus-- that I totally believe that we've got something.  I feel that there has to be something that has to be poetic about the fact that the epicenter where HIV starts is going to be the epicenter where HIV ends.  The community that was hit first and hit hardest is going to be the community that will answer the question!    

Now, that's a reason to be optimistic!

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